Friday, February 21, 2014

After 37 Years, A New DNA Test for a Convicted Rapist

The Nebraska State Legislature passed the DNA Testing Act in 2001 to open an avenue for appeal for those convicted of a crime before that technology even existed.  Few cases made it through the gauntlet of objections.  Juneal Pratt did it today.

A Douglas County District Court put Pratt in jail 37 years ago for a pair of rapes he claims he did not commit.  In a ruling handed down today the justices acknowledge improvements in DNA testing are reason enough to justify new testing of the victim’s clothing to determine if there is a clear match to Pratt.

Tracy Hightower-Henne, an attorney with the Nebraska Innocence Project, called the ruling  “incredibly exciting.”  Hightower-Henne, a volunteer who argued on Pratt’s behalf, said in a prepared statement the Nebraska Supreme Court rightly recognized that state law requires broad access to DNA testing when it might show that someone was wrongly convicted.(Read the court's ruling here.)

Omaha World-Herald 1975
In 1975, Pratt’s arrest and conviction barely caused a ripple in Omaha.  He was 19 years old “with a history of minor, petty crimes” according to Hightower-Henne. Police accused him of raping two sisters from Sioux City, Iowa staying at an Omaha hotel. The woman each pointed out Pratt in a police lineup and claimed to recognize his voice.  His shoes and a ring he wore also seemed familiar to the women. 

The case presented the jury was nearly all circumstantial but convincing enough that Pratt was found guilty.  In jail waiting for his trial he got in a fight with a guard, adding a charge of assault to the list.  In all, Pratt’s sentence totaled 95 years in prison. 

Through it all Pratt insisted he is innocent, making repeated attempts to get the evidence reviewed.  The State of Nebraska objected throughout. 

In 2005 the courts agreed to DNA testing of the clothing worn by the victims at the scene of the rape.  That type of sophisticated lab work did not exist in 1975. The Nebraska Legislature didn’t add post-conviction DNA testing into state law until 2001. 

Tests were done at the University of Nebraska Medical Center DNA laboratory.  As summarized in the Supreme Court’s brief “most of the 2005 DNA test results were inconclusive” in linking Pratt to the crime scene.  One stain on a victim’s shirt showed DNA originating from a male other than Pratt.  Prosecuting attorneys argued it was impossible to tell if the poorly stored evidence had been contaminated.  The District Court judge felt the evidence did not warrant overturning the original conviction and, at the time, the Nebraska Supreme Court agreed. 

Pratt and volunteer attorneys from the Innocence Project and the ACLU did not give up.  In 2011 they returned to district court with a nationally recognized DNA expert who testified significant advances in methods and research made it possible to identify and segregate DNA left behind by multiple individuals.  He also stated labs were better equipped to work with aging and degraded evidence.  “The previous test was not the final answer,” Hightower-Henne said.  “Scientific improvements in DNA testing mean that while the last test gave no definitive answer, a test today will show whether Mr. Pratt’s or another male’s DNA was present.” 
Juneal Pratt (Dept. of Corrections)
The District Court denied the request for additional testing.  The Supreme Court disagreed. Relying on the language in Nebraska’s DNA Testing Act the court’s majority wrote “the district court clearly erred in determining that test results that could identify another male’s semen on the victims’ clothing would have no bearing on Pratt’s guilt or culpability.

While the court ordered an immediate, updated inventory of all the evidence still being held in the original rape case, it is not clear how quickly the new tests can be performed.  

Listen to the original oral arguments before the Nebraska Supreme Court here.